How to Become a Graphic Designer in Illinois?

Working as a graphic designer combines the use of technology and creativity in a unique way. It’s a practical type of art and design that includes creating logos, brand materials, advertisements, book and magazine layouts, web pages, and more.

To be a graphic designer, you need to learn about design, have a passion for creating things, and know how to use several software programs. Illinois has plenty of opportunities for trained and educated designers. This is also a career well suited to freelance work. Before you dive into the world of graphic design, learn what it takes to start this career.

What is Required to Work as a Graphic Designer in Illinois?

There are no official requirements for working in this field or calling yourself a graphic designer. However, you do need the proper education. It takes skills and training to be able to use design software to create products for clients.

Most employers of graphic designers prefer candidates with a four-year degree in graphic design or a related area of study. A two-year degree might be acceptable if you are able to use all of the necessary software programs.

Many graphic design programs or schools require a portfolio review for admission. Take as many art classes as you can in high school, so you can build a strong portfolio. You should also take computer classes and any design courses offered. These will prepare you for success in a college program.

The Best Graphic Design Schools and Programs in Illinois

The National Association of Schools of Art & Design (NASAD) accredits college art, design, and graphic design programs. If you are serious about a career in design, look for NASAD’s seal of approval. This ensures you will be getting the best education and preparation for your future career. Illinois is home to several NASAD-accredited graphic design programs:  

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

The University of Illinois’s College of Fine & Applied Arts houses the School of Art & Design, which offers a four-year degree program in graphic design. The BFA graphic design program focuses on the traditional craft of design as well as the changing technologies designers use. There is an emphasis on using design to effect social change.

The courses include typography, design methods, design history, interaction design, and more, as well as general education classes. The program ends with a graphic design capstone project in the final semester.

Students here have access to several resources, including studio space, computer labs, video and audio equipment, 3-D printers, a lecture series, and a senior portfolio review. To be admitted to the program, you must apply to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and the School of Art & Design, which requires a portfolio submission. Funding opportunities are available for applications who qualify.

Illinois State University, Normal

Illinois State’s Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts offers two accredited degree programs in graphic design. The BA/BS graphic design degree tackles a broad spectrum of topics, including design history, typography, brand identity, and civic engagement. Students also complete an internship or a studio experience to build professional skills.

The Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in graphic design is more selective and includes several electives: game design, photography, expanded media, digital media, and others. Students have the same professional experience as in the BA/BS program but also must complete a project for a design exhibition in a chosen area of research.

Admission to the BFA program requires a portfolio review, but the BA/BS program only requires a five-piece art portfolio. To apply to either program, you must first be admitted to Illinois State. Qualified students can also apply for several scholarships to help cover the costs of tuition.

Bradley University, Peoria

Bradley’s Art and Design Department includes a degree program in Studio Art with a focus on graphic design. As a studio program, it includes hands-on art classes as well as graphic design courses. Some of the concentration classes are typographic design, user interface design and development, editorial design, and designing for a brand experience.

Students benefit from professional experiences, like internships. They complete senior design projects and create a portfolio to showcase their work. These projects provide graduates with a body of work they can show to potential employers.

The program includes two courses for graphic design. The BA program is heavy in a general liberal arts education with a concentration in graphic design. The BFA program is a professional degree with a greater focus on graphic design.

Chicago State University, Chicago

In CSU’s Art & Design department, students benefit from a low student-to-faculty ratio, updated technology and tools, and plenty of studio space. The program can also boast that 100% of its graduates either gain admission to a graduate program or find employment. The focus is on preparing students for a successful professional career.

The graphic design concentration includes a mix of courses in art, graphic design, art history, and general education. Some of the graphic design courses students take include typography, digital photography, 2D and 3D design, web page design, and design for interactive media.

Students build a portfolio of their work throughout the course of study. They undergo review and assessment three times and benefit from critiques and guidance from faculty. To be admitted to the program, applicants must be admitted to CSU. This requires high school transcripts and a teacher or counselor recommendation but not standardized test scores.

Eastern Illinois University, Charleston

EIU’s Department of Art and Design offers both a BA and a BFA in graphic design. Students can also choose to minor in graphic design. The BA in art with a focus in graphic design includes general education courses for the first two years, followed by graphic design classes in the junior and senior years.

For the BFA in graphic design, students begin taking design courses immediately. This is a more professionally-focused course of study and includes 78 credits in graphic design compared to the 54 credits in the BA program. The minor in graphic design includes 18 credits of related courses.

Some of the courses students in either program take include 2D and 3D art fundamentals, graphic design, typography, digital imaging, and motion graphics. All students create a senior portfolio as a culminating project. To apply, candidates must start with admission to EIU, which is test-optional. Applicants can also seek merit scholarships to defray tuition costs. They are available both with and without standardized test scores.

Outlook and Salaries for Illinois Graphic Designers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports slow growth in graphic design throughout the U.S. Positions in this career are projected to grow by 3% from 2020 to 2030. In Illinois, growth will be about 2%. This still amounts to nearly 1,500 new job openings each year, so there will be plenty of opportunities in the state for qualified designers.

According to the BLS, Illinois ranks fifth in the nation for the total number of employed graphic designers. This is led by the Chicago-Naperville-Elgin statistical area, which has nearly 9,000 professionals in the field of graphic design.

The BLS reports that graphic designers make around $53,380 per year across all states with a median hourly rate of $25.66. Designers earning in the top 10% can make more than $93,000 per year. The average salary in graphic design in Illinois is higher than the national average at $55,170. The average hourly rate in the state is $26.52.

Working as a Graphic Designer in Illinois

With the right education and a degree in graphic design, it shouldn’t be difficult to find work in Illinois. Nearly one-fifth of all graphic designers are self-employed. You can work as a freelancer or start your own small design business.

Alternatively, many different types of companies hire graphic designers as employees if you aren’t interested in freelancing. Design companies, marketing companies, and publishers are just some of the typical employers of graphic designers.

Many different types of companies, non-profits, and government agencies hire in-house designers to create their brand, marketing, and advertising materials. Here are a few examples of job listings for graphic designers in Illinois:

You can also find work as an employee if you prefer. Graphic designers work for design companies, advertising and marketing companies and departments, publishers, and magazines and newspapers. Here are some examples of current job listings for graphic designers in Illinois:

  • Graphic designer, O2Cool LLC, Chicago, $50,000 to $65,000 per year
  • Graphic designer, S&S Activewear LLC, Bolingbrook, $58,200 to $73,600 per year
  • Visual designer, Komodo Health, Chicago, $99,800 per year
  • Junior graphic designer, Brunswick Corporation, Mettawa, $34,800 to $44,000 per year
  • Freelance graphic designer, JHB Group, Inc., Lake in the Hills, $20 to $30 per hour
  • Graphic designer, Wheaton College, Wheaton, $35,700 to $45,300 per year

To become a graphic designer in Illinois, start with admission to an accredited degree program. You’ll learn all the technical skills and foundational design knowledge necessary to be a successful professional in high demand.